Bears

Bears

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Punk Rock Polar Bears?

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Polar bears are champion swimmers!

One of the most frequently asked questions during the summer months at Polar Bear Plunge is “Why are the bears green?” The answer may surprise you!

The outer guard hairs on a polar bear’s coat are clear and hollow (like a straw), which means they often take on the color of whatever they happened to roll in. Wild bears mostly have only snow and ice to lie on, so they usually maintain the bright white color that you imagine when you picture a polar bear. Here at the Zoo, we like to provide Kalluk, Tatqiq, and Chinook with as many different substrates in their habitat as we can so that they have options when they choose to rest or roll around. This gives them an opportunity to exhibit species-specific behavior. Throughout their habitat they have access to grass, sand, mulch, dirt, pine needles, hay, and a couple of hammocks made out of used fire hose. You may have seen Chinook masquerading as a brown bear after a prolonged roll in the mulch or dirt.

That brings me back to the original question of “Why are the polar bears green?” Remember those hollow hairs? That tiny space in each hair is a great place for algae to live. The bears’ main exhibit pool is fresh water and during the summer, when the weather is warmer than usual, algae begin to grow on the pool floor. When our bears swim and brush up along the bottom or sides of the pool, they pick up some of the algae, which continue to grow inside the individual hairs! It is not a concern for the bears as we have an elaborate filtration system and excellent water quality team. It is unlikely that they even notice it, but it does give them a bit of a punk rock look. In the winter, around Christmas time, they look downright festive!

The discoloration will last until the bears molt in the springtime. For about two weeks in March to April, our bears glisten with a brilliant white color. Once they start rolling around in all that substrate we provide, they begin to take on the color of their environment and the cycle begins again.

Matthew Price is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous blog, Springtime for Polar Bears.

2

Learning What We Can Learn From Camera Trap Photos: Part 2

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Can an Andean bear’s nose be a way to determine its age?.

I recently wrote about how we’ve determined that, with caution, researchers can identify individual Andean bears in camera trap photos. Researchers should therefore be able to answer some basic questions that have big implications for Andean bear conservation. However, there are many other important questions for which we still don’t have answers. For example, does the population in this watershed have an age structure that will be stable over the long-term?

How do you figure out how old an animal is when it was born in the wild years ago – 2 years ago, 8 years ago, or 14 years ago? Field researchers often use characteristics of mammals’ teeth to estimate their ages, but those methods require capturing the animals and it is definitely not easy to capture Andean bears. It turns out that we can use camera traps.

I might not have seriously considered using camera trap photos to investigate these kinds of questions except for a conversation with a field researcher from our collaborator, the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society. When I showed him a photo of an Andean bear living at the San Diego Zoo, he said “Wow, that’s an old bear!” He was correct, but how did he know that? He couldn’t describe exactly what it was about the photo that suggested that the bear was old, but I remembered that several years earlier some researchers had documented that the nose color of African lions changes as they age. Might the same thing happen in Andean bears?

Using photos of known-age bears from various zoos, we’ve determined that although the changes in nose color aren’t as predictable as we’d like, they’re consistent enough to provide some information about the age of the individual bear. And, using photos of captive- and wild-born cubs, we’ve verified that it’s possible to estimate the ages of young cubs from camera trap photos. Since fewer than a dozen Andean bear birth dens have ever been found in the wild, this could be really helpful in determining when female bears give birth to cubs. That information, in turn, is the first step in determining why females give birth then, and not at other times of the year.

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Notice the changes in Tommy’s nose from when he was  (left to right) 2, 17, and 23 years old.

Another set of conservation research questions can only be answered with information on the genetic structure of a population, or information on how individuals are related to one another. Does the population in this mountain range have a functional connection to other populations or is it isolated and inbred? What traits affect the probability that a female, or male, will have surviving offspring? Who knows which cub was sired by which male? Do cubs look like their parents? In other words, do the facial markings of cubs look like the facial markings of their parents? The only Andean bears with known mothers and fathers are the cubs born in captivity, so I worked with collaborators to test whether the markings of related captive-born Andean bears looked more similar than the markings of unrelated captive-bear Andean bears. They don’t. Sometimes bears that are closely related look alike, but sometimes they don’t. On the other hand, sometimes bears that look alike are closely related, but sometimes they’re not related at all. So, although it might be tempting to say that a cub which looks like an adult male is the offspring of that male, that’s a potentially misleading conclusion. We’ll just have to wait for the development of good genetic tools before we can answer questions about the genetics or kinship structure of Andean bear populations.

After thorough review and discussion by other scientists, this work has been published online in PeerJ, where you can read the details and see more photos.

Russ Van Horn is a scientist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous blog, Learning What We Can Learn from Camera Trap Photos: Part 1.

1

Learning What We Can Learn from Camera Trap Photos: Part 1

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Andean bears are sometimes called spectacled bears because of the rings of lighter colored fur around their eyes.

Others have said it before and it’s true: New forms of technology such as camera traps make it possible for field researchers to collect information we could previously only dream about. Technology advances so quickly that we’re still evaluating what we can do with these tools and what questions we can and cannot answer by using them. We have many basic questions that are still unanswered even for species as large as the Andean bear. Here are two of the most basic: How many are there? Are the populations increasing, stable, or decreasing? The answers to these questions and others would help researchers, conservationists, and governments decide how much of their limited resources to invest in research efforts and conservation actions, in the hopes that 100 years from now there will still be bears roaming the forests of South America. Unfortunately, there are still no answers to these questions.

How would you answer these questions? How do you count animals that live in dense forests in rugged habitat, when those animals avoid contact with humans? It’s been said for decades that the markings of individual Andean bears vary so much that you can identify each individual bear just by looking at it. If that’s true, then maybe we could use camera traps to identify individual Andean bears in photographs and then estimate population sizes and densities. However, how do you test whether individual bears can be reliably identified in photographs? In order to test this you’d need photos of a lot of different bears whose identity you definitely knew. That means you can’t just use photos of wild bears from camera traps, because you don’t know how many bears walked in front of the camera traps.

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Compare the markings of this bear, Tommy, with the bear above (named Turbo) and notice the differences.

The only way we could think of to test this was to take photos of different bears from captivity, so we’d know the identify of the bears, ask people to compare those photos, and keep score of whether bears were correctly identified, or not. When a group of international collaborators and I did this we were surprised to discover that people were initially not very good at this task. In fact, they would have done just as well if they’d flipped a coin! That’s really not the kind of result we were expecting, or hoping, and it led us to consider whether we were over-confident in our own abilities to identify individual bears. However, it turns out that with a little practice and training, participants became better at identifying bears from their photographs. After thorough review and discussion by other scientists, this work has been published in the journal Wildlife Biology and you can read all the details and see more photos here.

So, the good news is that, if we’re careful, we and other field researchers can use photos from camera traps to identify individual Andean bears, estimate the sizes of their populations, and compare populations densities. Now, we “just” need to get the cameras into the forests where there are bears!

Russ Van Horn is a scientist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous blog, Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow Receives a New Posting.

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Polar Bears: Summer Update

Handsome Kalluk is back in a non-breeding state of mind, but there are still many things that capture his attention!

Handsome Kalluk is back in a non-breeding state of mind, but remains a curious, active fellow.

In response to recent blog comments regarding Kalluk, the Polar Team wants to assure everyone that he is doing very well. He is rebounding nicely out of breeding season but does occasionally fall back briefly into some breeding season habits. Kalluk has gained a significant amount of weight and some days he eats about 40 pounds of meat! He is once again acknowledging keepers—always a nice change from the height of breeding season when he can be very non-responsive to behavior cues and “hellos” because his focus is elsewhere. He was even was trying to initiate play with me the other day as well as greeting me with his hot, bear breath when I said “good morning”. He also really enjoys a good lip rub again—he pushes his lips past the mesh so keepers are able to make safe contact.

For those who have noticed Kalluk walking around by the waterfall and rockwork in the back of the exhibit, rest assured he is not revisiting his breeding season antics. Behind the rockwork and those doors are the bedrooms where all the bears get the majority of their diet. At various time during the day, keepers call the bears inside to eat their favorite items in private bedrooms. Also in these bedrooms are some comfortable materials they use to make themselves a bed each night. One speculation for Kalluk’s motivation is that he either wants to come inside for food (Yea Kalluk!) or he would like to make a bed by hauling rubber mats, burlap, and boxes to his favorite spot—all of which are behaviors that we are very happy to see. We try to provide opportunities for the bears to create beds on exhibit as well, but we strive to give the bears choices and where they make their bed at night is one important choice. Early in the afternoon, the bears outside get to choose between being on exhibit or going in the bedrooms.

Tatqiq and Chinook are also doing well. You may notice Chinook is looking beautifully plump these days. We purposefully increased her diet significantly this year at this time, to see if it would tip the scales (pun intended) in favor of her chances of having cubs. We really are trying everything we can to make this breeding season a success. Other ways in which we are trying to increase Chinook’s chances (as we have in past years) are allowing her to “choose” her situation (i.e. isolation or with the group), access to air conditioned bedrooms, eventually installing her den, and continuing to study her hormone levels via fecal samples.

As usual, Tatqiq is her “happy-go-lucky” self. She too has gained a little weight, as we intentionally increased her diet. Stay tuned for some exciting projects in the future with Tatqiq!

Other updates include a recent change to the exhibit. We added a new bridge in front of the waterfall. This simple renovation to the exhibit will enable us to make future changes easier to facilitate such as using a bobcat to add more substrate to the exhibit. New substrate is a great source of enrichment and gives the bears more opportunities to make a bed on exhibit.

As the heat increases in the summer months, we do ask for your patience! On those hot days, the bears are allowed access to those nice, cool bedrooms by 3 p.m. PST at the latest in order to give them more choice. Each bear can decide to stay on exhibit (therefore potentially on view for Polar Cam fans) or choose to make a bed inside their bedrooms. Thank you for understanding!

Susan Purtell is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

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Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow Receives a New Posting

Mi Ton Teiow explores the archaeology and classical culture of ancient Greece, which included stories and myths about bears and people.

Mi Ton Teiow explores the archaeology and classical culture of ancient Greece, which included stories and myths about bears and people.

Bear Conservation Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow was posted to San Diego Zoo Global for one year following the 22nd conference of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA) in Provo, Utah, but he has now moved on to new adventures!

En route to the 23rd conference of the IBA in Thessaloniki, Greece, Mi visited some of the world-famous archaeological sites in Athens, and admired a statue of a little bear dedicated to the Greek goddess Artemis. This was a beautiful reminder that bears have played an important role in European culture since the rise of European civilization, and they still do. This point was reiterated at the conference during a special session on human-bear conflict. In addition, a session on conservation of Mongolian Gobi bears was attended by representatives of the Mongolian government, further illustrating the importance that some people around the world continue to place on bears and bear conservation.

Mi also heard updated assessments of the conservation status of the eight bear species by the IUCN’s Bear Specialist Group. Six of the eight species of bears are now considered at some risk of extinction, which is a sobering reality in a changing world. As part of the discussion of the status of Asiatic black bears and sun bears, Mi heard about ongoing efforts to reduce the impact of the harvest of these bears’ bile, which is used in some traditional medicinal practices. Mi’s previous travels have not dealt much with the issue of bear bile harvest, but Mi is now gaining much more exposure to this topic.

During the conference, a select committee of international bear biologists decided that Mi could now best serve bear conservation by traveling with Matt Hunt, Chief Executive of Free the Bears Fund, a non-profit, non-governmental organization focused on the conservation of bears in Asia. Since leaving Greece, Matt and Mi have already visited India, Cambodia, Australia, and Laos. So, although Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow has already explored bear conservation in many countries, there are many opportunities for further discovery. Good luck, Mi!

Russ Van Horn is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, What to Eat When There’s Nothing to Eat.

4

Who You Calling “Sloth?”

Curious Sahaasa sniffs out his new surroudings.

Curious sloth bear Sahaasa sniffs out his new surroundings.

This week, I had the opportunity to observe two new additions to the San Diego Zoo’s bear canyon. Sahaasa and Kayla, 2-year-old sibling sloth bears, got busy making themselves at home—and watching each go about it in their own way was quite interesting!

Sloth bears are not well known to many North Americans, but they are really very interesting creatures. Their long, shaggy coat makes them appear quite cute and cuddly, but they are good-sized bears with sharp claws and teeth and can therefore be quite dangerous if provoked. They live in the grasslands and open dry forests of India, where they feed primarily on insects; those extra long claws are particularly useful at shredding rotting wood and hard-packed dirt to gain access to the grubs, termites, and other delicious invertebrates that live beneath. So, too, is their muzzle well adapted to foraging for bugs, with highly mobile lips, nostrils that can close to keep dirt out, and a gap in their front teeth to allow them to vacuum up creepy crawlies. These guys are well suited to play nature’s exterminator.

The sloth bear is so-called because originally it was thought they resembled sloths, the slow-moving tree dwellers. In fact, sloths bears are not related to sloths, but the differences don’t end there.

In three hours yesterday, I watched Sahaasa climb a tree a half dozen times, crawl into the moat just as often, scratch a hole in a 6-inch-thick (15 centimeters) piece of deadwood, dig a hole (that his big body could nearly fit into) in about 10 minutes, dangle from the climbing structure more times than I could count, and sniff out every inch of his new exhibit space. The dictionary defines “sloth” as “habitual disinclination to exertion, laziness.” Apparently Sahaasa didn’t get the memo.

Kayla is a little more shy and reticent than her brother, but she performed her share of mayhem as well: she uprooted a shrub with little effort and dragged it half way across her exhibit. If you’d like to come say “hi” to the newest additions to our bear family, you might want to do it soon. I can’t guarantee any of their exhibit plants or hardware will survive for much longer!

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, World Orangutan Day.

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Lazy Gao Day

Panda Cam caught Bai Yun enjoying some treats on her "plate."

Panda Cam caught Bai Yun enjoying some treats on her “plate.”

We don’t get to see much of our senior panda, Gao Gao, on Panda Cam. But rest assured he is looking good, eating well, and, in the words of San Diego Zoo keeper Karen Scott, he seems “happy.” Gao is even at his ideal weight: 170 pounds (77.2 kilograms).

So why can’t guests view Gao Gao these days? Well, as Karen explained, Gao Gao and his son, Xiao Liwu, are “like peas in a pod,” personality-wise. “Mr. Wu” doesn’t like the construction noise as we build our new Asian leopard habitat, and neither does his dad! They are much more comfortable farther away from the intermittent noise. Xiao Liwu is currently in the off-exhibit north yard, where he can sometimes be seen on Panda Cam, and Gao Gao has access to another off-exhibit yard. Bai Yun, our matriarch, remains in her normal exhibit, where guests can admire her munching contentedly on bamboo. Nothing fazes this panda mama!

Although Gao Gao can go in his outside yard whenever he wants to, he sometimes prefers to have what Karen calls a “lazy Gao day.” He has a large rubber tub that he uses as a comfy bed. Keepers fill the tub with a flake of excelsior hay, and Gao likes to stretch out in it, resting on his back, his legs straight out and his forelimbs dangling over the edge. The other day, Karen put FOUR flakes of hay in the tub and fluffed up some of it to make a pillow for Gao. Panda heaven! With his pile of bamboo nearby, Karen says all he really needed was a TV to watch a football game or two.

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, How to Take a Panda’s Blood Pressure: 8 Easy Steps.

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Polar Bear Tatqiq Wears It Well

Tatqiq wears a collar

Tatqiq wears a collar for conservation science.

If you visit the San Diego Zoo’s Polar Bear Plunge these days, you might see something new: Tatqiq is wearing a white collar! While Tatqiq seems to be enjoying both wearing this new accessory and the training involved in putting it on and taking it off every day, our motives for having her wear it are focused on conservation science. Tatqiq will be contributing to research led by the U.S. Geological Survey focused on developing a better understanding of the behavior of wild polar bears in Alaska. These data will help us refine our understanding of how sea ice losses driven by climate change will impact polar bears.

The current configuration of the collar is simple: a thick and flexible plastic strap held together with a pair of zip ties, so Tatqiq can remove the collar easily if she wants to. If the collar is pulled, it will immediately loosen and fall off. However, this collar will soon be instrumented with a small accelerometer (the same technology that allows your smart phone to automatically adjust its screen orientation) that will provide scientists with information regarding the behavior of the bear wearing the collar. Because the polar bear’s Arctic sea ice has historically made it near impossible to make direct observations of polar bear behavior in the wild, the data we gain from the accelerometer will provide new insights into their daily behavior, movements, and energetic needs.

Held together with zip ties, the collar can easily come off if needed.

Held together with zip ties, the collar can easily be removed by Tatqiq if it bothers her.

“Radio-collars” have been used to track wildlife for decades and were initially developed to study the movements and infer the behavior of grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park. These early studies provided wildlife scientists with data that revolutionized our understanding of how individual bears moved about the landscape, and in so doing, helped us develop a much better understanding of what their habitat needs might be.

Since that time, the technology used to track wildlife has changed quite a bit, but the collar itself is still most commonly used to mount tracking devices and other instrumentation. With the advent of GPS collars (instead of VHF transmitters), the precision and quantity of the data we can collect on a wide array of animals has greatly expanded. The data collected by the instrumentation on these collars can also be downloaded remotely and frequently, allowing scientists and non-scientists alike the opportunity to track animals in the most remote corners of the Earth in real time and from the comfort of their own home or office.

While movement and location data are valuable, they only tell us part of the story. By studying behavior, we gain more insight into how animals interact with their environment and why different degrees of environmental change may differentially influence their chances of successful reproduction or survival. While baseline data can tell us about the range of behaviors an animal may engage in under a range of “normal conditions,” data collected under challenging environmental conditions can tell us much about the limits of a species’ ability to cope with their new environment and help us better predict what their limits might be. This work is part of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Changing Arctic Ecosystems Initiative.

We hope the collar...

We hope Tatqiq will help us test this new technology for studying wild polar bears.

The polar bear exemplifies the challenges associated with studying and protecting wildlife in our rapidly changing world. The Arctic sea ice, the habitat that the polar bear completely depends on for survival, is disappearing at an alarming rate. These habitat losses are driving population declines across the polar bear’s range, but some subpopulations are being hit harder than others. For example, recent results published from a long-term study of wild polar bears showed that the Alaskan population of bears from the Southern Beaufort Sea had declined by about 40 percent since the year 2000. Forty percent! That is a tremendous decrease and double the level of the most dire estimates that have come out of the last three decades of monitoring.

Tatqiq has always been a great conservation ambassador for polar bears everywhere. Visitors to the San Diego Zoo who have spent time watching Tatqiq (and Chinook and Kalluk) know that she is playful and engaged and demonstrates a range of behaviors that provide insights into the intelligence of these majestic bears. Now, Tatqiq will be helping us better understand how we can apply technology to better understand the behavior of wild bears. She wears it well!

Megan Owen is an associate director in the Applied Animal Ecology Division, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Pandas Zhen Zhen and Yun Zi.

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How to Take a Panda’s Blood Pressure: 8 Easy Steps

Liz offer Xiao Liwu a treat while his blood pressure is taken.

Liz offer Xiao Liwu a treat while his blood pressure is taken.

You may recall that in early June, keepers began training giant panda Xiao Liwu to have his blood pressure taken (see post Xiao Liwu: Star Student!). “Mr. Wu” learned to put his forelimb (arm) in the metal sleeve and lightly grab the bar at the end of that sleeve with his claws the first day of training. That was Step 1. But what were the next steps? Keeper Liz Simmons filled me in.

Step 2: Panda to keep arm in metal sleeve for increased lengths of time.

This was easy, says Liz. As long as Mr. Wu was getting rewarded for calmly staying in one spot with his arm in the metal sleeve, he was happy to sit there all day! Squirts of honey water were the big ticket items for our boy, but he was (and still is) also willing to do this step for pieces of apple, carrot, sweet potato, and biscuits (soaked, not dry).

Step 3: Get panda used to having arm touched.

Talk about a fun task! Keepers touched, poked, and rubbed Xiao Liwu’s arm while it was in the sleeve. He, of course, had been touched a lot when he was small, but now that he’s such a big bear (almost 100 pounds), keepers might give his ears or head a scratch through the metal mesh but don’t usually touch his arms. He had to get comfortable with them touching his arm. No problem!

Step 4: Wrap blood pressure cuff around panda’s arm.

We use the same type of blood pressure cuff used for humans, but in Mr. Wu’s case, a child-size one. This step involved pulling apart the Velcro strips and attaching the cuff to our two-ear-old bear’s arm so he could get used to the feel of the cuff. YIKES—Wu did NOT like the sound of the Velco ripping apart! He had never heard that sound before.

Step 5: Get panda used to sound of Velcro ripping.

Liz ripped the Velcro in Xiao Liwu’s vicinity every chance she got to get him used to this new sound. She even called him over to her while he was on exhibit and ripped that Velcro. It didn’t take long for Mr. Wu to become desensitized to the sound of Velcro. (Now, when I hear Velcro ripping, I’ll always think of our panda boy!)

Step 6: Wrap blood pressure cuff around panda’s arm (again)

With Velcro issues a thing of the past, keepers could now proceed to wrap the cuff on his arm. No problem this time!

Step 7: Get panda used to having his arm squeezed.

Once the cuff was in place, a keeper squeezed her hand around the cuff to simulate the feel of a blood pressure squeeze. No problem there!

Step 8: Hook up cuff to blood pressure machine, place cuff on panda, and take a reading.

On November 3, 2014, Xiao Liwu had his first blood pressure reading. Actually, he was so comfortable and calm during the procedure that keepers took three readings. Mr. Wu has passed!

For now, these blood pressure readings will provide a baseline for our medical team. They will be done every week or so, as time allows. Xiao Liwu is happy to cooperate. Liz says he “really like to work!”

Next up for our star student? Blood-draw training.

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Pandas On and Off.

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Pandas Zhen Zhen and Yun Zi

Do you remember when Yun Zi turned 3?

Do you remember when Yun Zi turned 3?

Many of you have been wondering how some of our San Diego Zoo-born pandas are doing since their arrival in China. We are happy to report that both Zhen Zhen and Yun Zi are doing very well!

Zhen Zhen, now 7 years old, lives in Wolong’s Bi Feng Xia panda base. She gave birth back on August 24, her first surviving cub (she gave birth to a stillborn cub in 2013). Mother and cub are both doing great. Her cub, born at 6.9 ounces (194.5 grams) now weighs a healthy 6.6 pounds (3,000 grams)! The behavior of Zhen Zhen and her cub has been normal, and the increase in body weight certainly tells us that this young panda is getting plenty to eat! Wonderful job, Zhen!

Yun Zi, now 5 years old, is also making us proud. He is currently at Wolong’s panda base in Dujiangyan, where he continues to exemplify a robust, energetic, and healthy young male panda. He has settled in just fine to his new surroundings. We still miss him, though, but are thrilled to hear that he is thriving!

Megan Owen is an associate director with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Panda Collaboration.